Thursday, January 05, 2012

Abstract for Soviet Apartheid article

This article examines the Stalin regime's treatment of the ethnic Germans in the USSR during the 1940s as a case study in racial discrimination.  After 1938, Soviet definitions of nationality became racialized. Systematic repression against certain nationalities in the USSR after this time clearly fit the definition of racial discrimination formulated by scholars in the post-war era. This article examines the separate and unequal institutions of the special settlement regime and labor army imposed upon the ethnic Germans in the USSR during World War II in the context of race as a category constructed along lines of primordial and essentialist views of culture. It also compares the construction of racialized groups and the practice of racial discrimination in the USSR with South Africa during the apartheid era.


Merv said...

I look forward to reading the entire article when it is published.

Allen Palmer said...

Otto, I asked a anthropologist friend, Nathan Jones, to comment on your abstract. He did his doctoral research on German communities in Kazakhstan. I think his anthropological insights are useful. Working only from the abstract you posted, here are his thoughts:

"I personally haven’t found any evidence to identify a discursive shift from nationalization to racialization,
for the Germans or other groups in the Soviet Union. Here is why Iwould question an argument about the Soviets using racial discourse to justify German relocation in 1941 (and subsequent forced labor

• Making a case for racialization is tricky, because race is a concept justified by an understanding of biological difference. According to
the argument in the abstract, the Soviets racialized “along lines of primordial and essentialist views of culture,” which isn’t racializing, because race is an argument about fundamental biological differences among human groups. Racism, or racial discrimination, can then be justified by claiming that some human groups are physically more advanced than others, which naturalizes the perpetuation of
inequalities among groups.
• The NAZI’s were experts at racializing and took great pains to demonstrate the physical differences between Jews and Northern Europeans (by measuring craniums to determine brain capacities, etc.)
in order to justify their racialization and subsequent treatment of the Jewish population. Certainly the Soviets didn’t conduct such eugenicist-like programs on Germans to establish the notion of racial difference. If there was a discursive shift without evidence of fundamental biological difference (as the NAZIs attempted to provide)
how did the Soviets qualify the use of such discourse?
• I have had numerous conversations with ethnic Germans from the Soviet Union (including some who experienced relocation) and non-Germans in Russia and Kazakhstan about topics relative to ethnicity, nationalism, and race, and race still seems to be a
relatively unfamiliar concept for most. I certainly haven’t met any Germans who would articulate their experience as having been racialized. In fact everyone with whom I spoke who experienced, or
whose parents experienced, the relocation said that they received criticism from Russians during and after WWII for their perceived
cultural affinity with the NAZI’s.
• Since the NAZI’s were also attempting to racialize Slavs, it also seems there would be some danger for Russians to coopt that kind of discourse as it would potentially support the NAZI’s position about a
fundamental racial difference between Slavs and Germanic peoples.

I quite frankly don’t know much about apartheid in South Africa. My understanding is that the logic of apartheid was strongly connected with the reorganization of labor in South Africa, which the Soviet relocations of Germans became. However, suggesting that Soviets justified the relocation and forced labor of Germans by identifying Germans and others as racial doesn’t gel with my experience. Besides, why racialize when it was just as easy to cast Germans as a cultural enemy as evidenced by their aggression towards the Soviet Union?"

J. Otto Pohl said...


The article is not about discourse. It is about institutional racism and its justification along cultural lines. Race is not about biology. It has nothing to do with physical differences what so ever. That is a Soviet definition of the concept. A definition they specifically crafted to avoid the charge of racial discrimination. The South Africans and Israelis followed them in this path. Race is about lineage, descent, or ancestry from particular cultural groups. Otherwise Nazi Germany ends up being the only place and I really mean the only place with any racism in the 20th century. If we use your friend's definition there was never any official racism in South Africa from 1948-1991. This is just a stupid definition.

The South Africans were very, very careful after 1945 to almost always refer to cultural differences rather than biological differences between human groups to justify apartheid. In 1948 when the Nats officially began instituting apartheid they were well aware that the biological concepts of the Nazis were discredited, but that the ethnic and cultural ones of the Soviets were not. They even used the term bantustans to refer to the native reservations. So the South Africans talked about cultural, historic, and linguistic differences between groups. They almost never mentioned physical differences as the reason for separate development. These just happened to coincide with the cultural differences that were the official justification for apartheid. But, the same can be said for Soviet treatment of Koreans and Kalmyks. Instead what they did mention a lot is the same type of things the Soviets mentioned with regards to their nationality policies. That is the differences in culture, the differences in territory, the differences in levels of material development between European and African groups. If you examine the two cases with an open mind you will see the two cases are far more similar than they are different. In South Africa skin color was just a marker of cultural difference that was the official justification for separation, not the justification itself.

If race is about biology and not culture then there is practically no racism or racial discrimination in Europe and has been almost none for decades. Racist groups in Europe have since the 1980s almost always used culture not biology as their justification for demanding differential treatment of different groups of people. But, racism does exist in Europe and it is almost always justified by reference to culture not biology. The Nazis were just about the only exception to this rule.

There is long list of scholars who have dealt with race as a concept constructed along cultural rather than biological lines. Among them are Kenan Malik, George Fredrickson, Virginia Tilley. Also good are Eric Weitz who specifically writes about racialization in the USSR and Saul Dubnow who writes about South African apartheid. Again a definition of racism that only covers Nazi Germany and excludes apartheid South Africa is stupid.

LFC said...

Don't some forms of racism rest on a combination of the physical and the cultural? I think it might seem odd to say that skin color was treated as just a marker of cultural difference when one considers, for example, the history of African-Americans in the U.S.

I don't know a lot about the history of apartheid but surely the ideological justifications, while they might have veered in a cultural direction post-1948, have roots in a pre-apartheid view that emphasized the superiority of the "white race" -- see e.g. some of things Smuts wrote or said as a young man. (I touched on this in a post at my blog some time ago. It should come up if you type "Smuts" into the search box.)

All this is quite far from my field so take this as more a question than a comment if you prefer...

J. Otto Pohl said...


During the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a move to make racism scientific by giving it a genetic and biological justification. This reached full fruition under the Nazis. But, my point is not that there were never cases of racism justified along physiological lines. Rather that there are many cases of racism justified along cultural lines. Traditional anti-semitism being the prototype given by Balibar. After all Jews were a racialized group and they do not look different than any other white Europeans. Their racialization was based upon being descended from a group of people historically marked by adherence to a particular religion. If you insist that racism can only be about skin color then there is no way to explain the existence of anti-semitism as a form of racism.

In the case of S. Africa scientific racism has some advocates in the 1920s, 30s, and early 40s. Although apparently less than one would expect. After 9 May 1945, however, this stops pretty abruptly at least on the official level. From then on the official justifications are all careful to almost always refer to cultural differences. A similar thing happened in the USSR by the way. In 1934 eugenics research is terminated in the Soviet Union with the Nazi consolidation of power. See the work of Marina Mogil'ner on this if you can read Russian. She goes into quite a bit of detail.

My definition of race is pretty simple and it is taken from Fredrickson, Weitz, and other scholars who actually specialize in the subject. Basically race is any category that people are born into, can not leave during their life time, and pass automatically to their children. Since race is a constructed category it can be constructed from ethnicity, nationality, religion (anti-semitism again), or biology (phenotypes). But, it does not have to be based upon this last criteria and since the defeat of Nazi Germany generally has been based upon ethnicity (culture) rather than biology.

LFC said...

Regrettably, I can read only English and French, not Russian. (My fault for not taking language study more seriously. Also the fault of the U.S.'s education system which didn't force me to do so.) But thank you for the reply.